Perhaps I was overenthusiastic in making our first stop on our Asian tour a jungle safari in Sri Lanka. Well, technically, it wasn’t the first stop.
We took off at 9pm Dec 23 from DC, and landed at 5am Dec 25 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were picked up at the airport by our old friends Dan and Yvonne (Dan was stationed at the embassy here in August, hence our visit), and went to their home in Colombo. They have a beautiful two bedroom house in the diplomat area, and it was decorated with gorgeous local flowers and even a Christmas tree with highly suspect electrical lighting.
Yvonne made a huge breakfast of cranberry sticky buns with orange glaze, omelets, and fruit. We first did our Sri Lankan Christmas as James and I came with gifts. Then, we feasted and I took a two and a half hour power nap. After a shower we hit the city, which reminds me a lot of Faro, Portugal. It’s crowded for sure, but has a great view of the beach from a lot of the city. We went to a coffee shop overlooking the sea, wandered through the big park, got ice cream at an Italian shop, went to a sky top bar overlooking the beach, and finished the night with a fantastic dinner outside under trees decorated with small lights. Well, my night ended there.
For the guys, they were very displeased that Christmas day was on a full moon, which is a non-religious government monthly holiday that means no alcohol consumption allowed. This meant no drinks at the bar or dinner. So once we got back to the house and I hit the bed, James helped Dan start AND finish a small keg of beer he had bought for a BBQ the previous week and never opened. I have no idea how James did it, as I was knocked out as soon as we got home.
The next day we met our driver and sidekick for the trip, Shyam, for a 6am departure to drive across the coast of the country to Yala National Park, where we planned a three day safari. I was dreading this drive, as I get carsick really easily and had heard from everyone how awful the roads are and especially the aggressive and insane driving (lanes are irrelevant! It’s constantly a game of chicken). Let’s just say James and I are the luckiest people alive, and Shyam’s tagline should be “the best driver in the world.”
We passed a lot of impoverished towns, most people barefoot and homes without windows, just one room with a metal roof. The road out of Colombo was an expressway, which Shywam informed us that the Chinese built. Halway to Yala we passed an enormous harbor and “international airport.” But, Shyam said, “It is a harbor with no ships. An airport with no planes.” Seems the Chinese built that too. I am unsure why the Chinese are investing so much in Sri Lanka outside of gaining influence in the region, and maybe Google could help me but I don’t have time. But the harbor with no ships thing has stuck with me, a solid symbol of unfulfilled optimism.
While the traffic was insane, the roads weren’t as bad as I feared and 6 hours later we arrived at a side dirt road, Shyam made a call, and a jeep drove up to take us to the camp site.
From there on in, for the next three days, I have never successfully crossed such insane roads. Ever. They aren’t really roads, they are cleared dirt paths with potholes so large that cars would get stuck on their axels. We did so much bouncing around and clinging for dear life that I left the jungle with a bruised tailbone!
We arrived at our campsite after driving through a small lagoon, and it truly was incredible. Our tent had a queen bed, two lounge chairs out front, and even a bathroom in the back with a shower, sink, and toilet. Don’t be too impressed, there wasn’t hot water, but it is a huge upgrade from the type of camping I normally do! They also had a five star chef, so our lunches were served on beautifully done tables with multiple courses, and our dinner were lit up at night by torches throughout the camp and consisted of fresh meat BBQ and amazing soups, sides, and dessert. Too bad I never stayed awake for a full dinner, literally falling asleep sitting up at my table each night.
So the safari. What can I say? I had never been on a safari of any kind, and certainly not in a jungle. James and I had our own jeep with a guide and driver. The first day we didn’t see any big game, but our guide thought he might have spotted a leopard (the reason most come to the park, and also very rare to see). While we were waiting for this theoretical leopard to move, James and I both fell asleep! That’s jet lag. Anyways, the first day I got some great shots of the scenery but not a lot else, and was starting to wonder about my choice of three days of driving around in the high heat and sudden rain looking for animals in thick bush.
Day two was a full 12 hour safari, so we were up at 5am and driving into the park before sunrise. You don’t need coffee when you have potholes the size of smart cars, believe me. From the start, this was an incredible day.
While waiting for the gate to the park to open I saw an ENORMOUS elephant, and asked the guide, “Those things don’t attack cars, do they?”
And he said, “Oh no, they nice elephants.” Then after a pause, “Well, there is one famous attack elephant, but he rare to see and we be ok if see him, I know trick.” I think you know where this day is headed.
So off into the park we went for a gorgeous sunrise. We ran into everything immediately: lizards, chameleons, various birds, spotted deer, water buffalo, crocodiles. Then, we came into a clearing where there is a big lake, and in the middle was an elephant enjoying breakfast. I got some great shots of him, broken tail and all. We then headed deep into the jungle, and came across a safari traffic jam by a river. Word spread there was a leopard in a tree, so we waited, I put on my biggest zoom lens, and with a lot of direction was able to locate the illusive leopard. Well, it’s butt at least.
I mean, who was able to spot this thing driving by??? The above is zoomed in at 300mm! Anyways, after 20 minutes we went off-roading to get around the now 30+ vehicles as I don’t think I specialize in patience, which is a requirement when awaiting a leopard.
We came around a bend deep in the jungle and saw two jeeps stopped in front of us. And to their right, a bull elephant with huge tusks!
“Wow! Look at that guy!” I exclaimed, snapping photos as he walked towards a jeep.
The guide was silent, and then James said, “I don’t think it’s a good sign when they flap their ears like that.”
Our guide said, “Remember one bad elephant? This him!”
We saw him approach the jeep slowly, and everyone inside was excited, then he locked his tusks into the open portion of their jeep. The jeep tried to move but couldn’t. Then the bull used his trunk to pull out all of their lunches, flap around a bit to intimidate, and set them free. The first two jeeps then took off, clearly shaken! He then turned to us.
“Hang on!” the driver yelled, as we couldn’t go back since there was now a jeep behind us. We had to go by him. He hit the gas and we flew by the bull, but he then took chase. Our driver slowed, and for about five minutes the bull steadily followed us, flapping his ears and trying to catch us. It was incredible!
Eventually he gave up and headed into the bush.
About a kilometer later we came to a spot where the road washed out, and you had to drive down a severe slope in the mud. The two jeeps in front off loaded all their passengers, because they were two wheel drive (WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?). They then slid down the hill, almost flipping and sliding into the trees. We hung on and stayed in as our driver slid down. Jungle jeeping is not for the faint of heart!
The rest of the day was full of elephants and other great game. We took a picnic lunch on the beach next to a fishing village. It is where the tsunami hit in 2004, killing 35,000 Sri Lankans. Our guide was on this very beach when he saw the water recede and, knowing what it meant, ran over two miles in the jungle to a high point to the right of this photo. Others that didn’t know wandered out into the open beach and began writing their names in the sand, oblivious to their mistake until it was too late. I still think about that image.
Our last safari was full of pouring rain, and it was so humid in the jungle that my camera lenses quit working! So the final day I shot old school on full manual, no light adjustments or auto focusing possible. I got some of my best shots, though, particularly my monkey series.
It was a humbling trip, and an extreme journey. We headed away from Yala ready for a hot shower and some lower humidity. I had made an amateur mistake and washed my two outfits by hand the last night, and they didn’t dry until two days later once we reached the mountains of Ella.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the photo and hope you all had a great Christmas!